Saving Money By Dining Out

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - March 11, 2009
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Tim and Nina Zagat

After my rant last week about dining out to save time and money, I enjoyed a conversation with Tim and Nina Zagat on the subject. They had just finished an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal on exactly the same subject and agreed that dining out in a mid-priced restaurant often-times can be a better option than staying home.

“The fact is,” says Tim, “we all have to eat. For the vast majority of people, it is often less expensive to go to a moderately priced restaurant than it is to shop, cook and clean.” He went on to make the point that more than 90 percent of us still have jobs, and all of us have to eat.

“Many people would be better working an extra hour or two at what they’re good at and letting a restaurant do what it is good at: providing food that’s interesting and diverse, and in the vast majority of cases, not terribly expensive,” he said.


Tim and Nina, in case you didn’t guess, are the founders of Zagat. That’s the burgundy-colored paperback you see foodies and savvy travelers carrying with them when checking out restaurants in foreign lands. It’s known as the “Burgundy Bible.”

The Zagats started the guide 30 years ago as a resource for their own friends, and this past January the first-ever Hawaii Zagat was published.

“There was nothing out there that enabled busy professionals to find a place to eat,” says Nina, “and no relevant information.

We were members of a wine group, and we started surveying our friends.” Initially about 200 people were involved. Today there are more than 400,000 people who add comments to the no-nonsense dining and travel guide. Zagat‘s honesty is refreshing, and because so many people take part in the surveys, comments usually find a balance between truth and accuracy on most points.

“We always try to make sure that they’re fun to read,” says Tim, adding that one reason the guides read so well is that people don’t always agree.

How has the guide changed over the past 30 years, with the growth of foodies and all?

“There weren’t any foodies when we started,” Tim replies.

“And people today are much more educated about what they want and expect,” adds Nina. “Food is a much more important part of people’s lives. Having more choices makes people more critical.”

The nice thing about talking to people who deal in statistics is that you feel as if you’re getting truthful answers to every question. I wondered if people really are eating out less, and if restaurants would survive the recession. “People are still dining out,” says Tim, “and 36 percent say that they’re looking for less-expensive meals, 34 percent say they’re cutting back on appetizers, alcohol and dessert, and 40 percent say they’re price sensitive when it comes to looking at a menu.”

That means they’re choosing fried chicken over filet mignon.

But the Zagats are hopeful for the future, and I am too.

“During the Great Depression people always loved to go to the movies,” says Tim.

“Today, going to a place where a lot of other people are having a good time, and going out with family and friends, is a good thing. Staying home and being isolated doesn’t help you feel better.”

Let’s drink to that.

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